Lawsuit: Was “Stairway to Heaven” A Plagiarism?

Written by Brant David

Did Jimmy Page really rip off a Spirit instrumental to write “Stairway to Heaven?” Brant David explores the legal issue from a musical standpoint, examining the key and methods used in both compositions. Analysis.

aNewDomainImage courtesy of Zach Dischner, Flick Creative Commons Before his untimely death in 1997, a musician named Randy California (no, that wasn’t his birth name), formerly of the band Spirit, claimed in an interview that Jimmy Page had ripped off his instrumental piece “Taurus” to create Led Zeppelin’s 1971 hit,”Stairway to Heaven.”

“Stairway to Heaven” is an eight-minute epic complete with now-famous lyrics that, over 40-plus years, has brought in nearly $570 million. Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones wrote it in 1970 and released it the following year on Led Zeppelin IV.

And now there’s a lawsuit. Brought by Randy California’s surviving family plus a former Spirit bass player in 2014 — fully 43 years after the song’s release — the suit alleges that Randy California ought to have been given partial songwriting credits on “Stairway to Heaven,” and that such credits need to start appearing immediately on any reprints or reissues of Led Zeppelin IV.

It is more than just a matter of pride. Randy California is long dead, after all. It’s about cash, of course. People credited with writing a song are owed a royalty payment every time the song gets played and any time it gets licensed for commercial use. “Stairway to Heaven” has made Page and Plant, the two officially credited songwriters, a whole lot of money. Randy California’s family, were he to appear in the credits, would pocket a lot, too, plus they could be owed back-money.

Is it a claim that smells suspicious? Oh, yes. What follows tells us why.

Allegations: Strange But True? Or, Strange But False?

The lawsuit rests squarely on the allegation that Jimmy Page played part of Randy California’s “Taurus” piece “note for note,” and that he did so for a relatively extended period into “Stairway to Heaven.”

Is this what happened? Let’s do what a judge and jury would (or should) have to do and actually listen to the songs.

Below is what Randy California’s “Taurus” sounds like. Like the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar part in its first section, it’s finger picked. Both compositions are in the same key, A Minor. Both have a similar descending bass line. But “Taurus” stays in A Minor. And as any guitarist who has learned “Hotel California” knows, that song goes on to a D Minor with F sharp in the bass and on to G Minor and so on. If you can read music or have an experienced musician’s trained ear, after listening to the song and commentary, below, you’ll understand that the right response to allegations of plagiarism is “no”.

“Taurus” analysis video: The Devil YouTube Channel

There are sections of “Taurus”  (1968) that do make one think of the first section of “Stairway to Heaven.” But the differences between “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” are significant. Namely:

  • “Taurus” is an instrumental. “Stairway to Heaven” is a song with lyrics.
  • “Taurus” is about 2 minutes, 37 seconds long. “Stairway to Heaven” is about 8 minutes long.
  • “Stairway to Heaven” eventually features drums and wailing electric guitars. “Taurus” features neither.
  • “Taurus” features a harpsichord, or something that sounds like one. There’s no harpsichord in “Stairway to Heaven.” Page reportedly did originally think of including one in the first section of the song. Yet later, he decided on the electric piano, the instrument you hear later.
  • “Taurus” begins with a classical-style strings arrangement, having the guitar come in later. “Stairway to Heaven” begins with a solo acoustic guitar, then features the entry of Renaissance-style recorders.
  • As mentioned above, the finger-picked guitar figure played by Page is by no means an exact replication of Randy California’s.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer argues that Page got the idea to “steal” the music from “Taurus” while Led Zeppelin opened some tour dates for Spirit in late 1968 and in 1969.

Page really did get to hear “Taurus” performed by Spirit during that period. Then, in 1970, he began composing “Stairway to Heaven.”

But does this amount to or logically lead to plagiarism? Or stealing? And is stealing in this context the same as plagiarism, anyway?

“We All Steal”

Given that Page would have (in all probability) heard “Taurus” performed live when his band toured with Spirit, is it possible that he found some inspiration in “Taurus,” which is a beautiful piece of music? Is it possible he used that inspiration when he was writing “Stairway to Heaven” in 1970?

Page denies having heard the song. According to this report in Classic Rock :

Documents claimed Jimmy Page had been exposed to the music when the bands toured together during Zep’s first U.S. trip. But the guitarist last year dismissed the suggestion as ‘ridiculous’ …  though (Led Zeppelin band members do) admit to playing a medley that included a Spirit track during live shows in 1968 and 1969.”

And still, even if he’d heard it, knew it and played it for himself, Page probably didn’t have “Taurus” in his head at all when he was writing. After all, having a descending bass line from A minor is hardly unique. Neither is a finger-picked song. Note, though, that “Stairway to Heaven” is far more complex than that, with an ascending bass line in A minor intertwined with the descending line.

Moreover, creative artists “steal” from each other all the time. “Stealing” in art, especially in music, is not the same thing as “plagiarizing,” nor is it the same thing as, say, stealing someone’s motorcycle.

As one of Page’s contemporaries, rock guitar god Ritchie Blackmore, put it in a 1996 interview:

“We all steal … Page stole from everybody — a lot — he has a great record collection. So we all steal.”

Blackmore, by the way, has insisted that he wrote his most famous guitar riff, “Smoke on the Water,” by “stealing” from the opening of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Stealing, in music, is not a musical term that is akin to literary plagiarism.

There are infinite possibilities in music composition, of course, but remember that in Western music, there are only 88 notes and 24 keys. Songs and pieces of music often remind us of other ones. Indeed, part of the reason why we label musical genres is because different songs and compositions within them have notable, even deliberate, similarities.

Besides, if we’re going to use the so-called logic behind the “Stairway to Taurus” lawsuit, then we may want to seriously consider that it was Randy California who was originally guilty of “theft!”

Did you hear the one about how the title of the song “Stairway to Heaven” got changed to “Stairway to Taurus?”

It’s true that Led Zeppelin have faced their share of plagiarism complaints over the years. Legal ones. And those charges haven’t always been off-base.

But when you’re talking about the biggest hard rock band the world has thus far ever known — biggest in terms of popularity and monetary earnings — you’ve got to take a rational, careful approach. You have to ask: Who has a legitimate grievance? And who’s just out to get lots of money from a band they envy, or just out for the sake of avarice?

You need to read between the black and white when a song — one song, written and recorded by the band in question, that has generated nearly $570 million USD in revenues — gets that band sued. This decades after its release, by the family and the former band mate of a dead guitar player who might have inspired a little bit of the song in question.

Oh,”Cry Me A River”

There’s a little piece by guitar player Davey Graham that he wrote in the late 1950s called “Cry Me a River.” Davey Graham was heavily influential on 1960s British rock guitarists — Page has publicly cited him as a huge influence in the past.

“Cry Me a River” sounds quite similar, in parts, to “Taurus” as well as to the opening section of “Stairway to Heaven.” Listen:

“Cry Me A River” video: Nick Spring YouTube Channel

Anyone who is going to believe that Page ripped off Randy California has little other choice but to believe that California ripped off Graham. Should the Randy California estate win its lawsuit, then why shouldn’t another lawsuit be brought to force any “Stairway to Heaven” royalties that get paid to the California estate to immediately be forwarded to the Davey Graham estate?

Hey, why should thieving plagiarists or, worse yet, their surviving family, be rewarded anyway?

This lawsuit, to me, is just an obvious attempt by avaricious clients to try to bilk a famous band out of millions, betting that judges and juries won’t know better. It’s criminal stupidity.


“Stairway to Heaven” video: LinkBulletBill YouTube channel

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